Intelligent Hindsight, a.k.a. History
The Easily Distracted Cliopatriarch (though I'm more than a little covetous of that title, myself) has written something rare and wonderful: intelligent hindsight. What's the difference between intelligent hindsight and dumb hindsight? Well, intelligent hindsight is neither pure fault-finding nor self-congratulation. Historians ought to be good at that, but sometimes we get caught up in either moralizations or single-cause arguments that obscure our better judgment. Sometimes the answers are obvious but not simple, and the difference between those is the difference between politics and policy. Intelligent hindsight also should be some sort of guide to the future: what should we do differently, who should we listen to that we ignored, who should we ignore in their stead. And, as Dr. Burke points out, there were lots of people who predicted the situation we are in, domestically and internationally. Alice Walker once said that"The best substitute for war is intelligence" and she didn't mean the CIA, either. This is what historians do well, I think, and this is why more people should listen to us.
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Ralph E. Luker - 5/7/2004
By popular demand: Lake Woebegone was founded by Unitarian-Universalist missionaries who had gone west to teach liturgical dance to the Ojibwe Indi, ah, native Americans.
Van L. Hayhow - 5/7/2004
Then recount, recount!
Jonathan Dresner - 5/7/2004
OK, my shorthand needs explaining. My primary knowledge of Richard Pipes is his role in 1980s rhetoric and policy and the legacy of essentialized enemy-mongering nationalism he apparently passed to his son. Secondarily, my wife got to know him (and his reputation) a little as a student in the Soviet Studies MA program at Harvard (one of the last Soviet Studies MA's out there, since she graduated in '90), and her conclusion was that he did some fine work in his early career but became increasingly ideological, angry and narrow-minded in his work as time went on, to the point that his later work just didn't exhibit any kind of self-awareness or detachment. My experience with other Russian scholars suggests that his reputation is mixed, but I don't know that many, either.
I don't know if that makes me an apologist or not. I stayed out of that discussion, for the most part, because I just don't read or write in those fields enough to have an ax to grind or baliwick to defend.
Derek Charles Catsam - 5/6/2004
Richard Pipes is not an especially good historian? I do not know many non-Stalin apologist Soviet historians who think as much. Pipes is a very respected Soviet historian. This seems an ideological and not intellectual argument.
Ralph E. Luker - 5/6/2004
Van, I assume that you are familiar with the history of the founding of Lake Woebegon. If not, I am known to recount it for people, whether they want to hear it or not.
Van L. Hayhow - 5/6/2004
Yes, just like Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.
Anne Zook - 5/6/2004
It goes without saying that everyone here is exceptionally well-informed and honest.
Danny Loss - 5/6/2004
Not to put too fine a point on it, but collective amnesia is a feature of virtually all societies. All countries have their dirty little secrets that they'd rather forget entirely. It's up to historians to keep these skeletons out of the closet.
Peter Burke discusses this in his "History as Social Memory" in a volume edited by Thomas Butler. He says it a whole lot better than I do (and has examples to back it up!).
Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2004
Well, I could argue that by "listen to us" I meant "read Cliopatria".....
Neither Richard nor Daniel Pipes are particularly good historians, and both have long records of being very wrong: intelligent hindsight suggests that they are people who should be ignored. Ferguson... well, I haven't seen anything which suggests that he is trying to do anything deeper than revive Imperialism so he has something to study.
Anne Zook - 5/5/2004
Knowledge being no substitute for intelligence, as it were.
Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004
Time calls Niall Ferguson and Richard Pipes two of the 100 most influential people in the world. Last time I heard, both of them were urging the United States to do more of what we've been doing in Iraq -- more forcefully, more expensively, more personnelly (!). Ferguson urges the administration to pursue empire. Somehow, being a historian -- even being expert in the region -- doesn't necessarily mean that what a person says is wise.
I R Krubner - 5/5/2004
My perception might be off, but I have the impression that amnesia is a central part of American culture. When I say "amnesia" I mean a disregard for history. The amnesia I mean is quite different from ignorance, because some of the smartest people I know lack any awareness of history. Maybe that is too strong - it might be more correct to say that historical awareness is the last type of awareness that they attempt to cultivate.
Compare American business culture to German business culture. American business managers put an emphasis on innovation, new-thinking, and creativity. German business managers, by contrast, place an emphasis on thoroughness and research. (Discount these statements for being overly broad however much you think appropriate.) In a meeting, the American manager will typically try to offer up an idea that seems strikingly new, whereas a German manager will try to demostrate that they researched the issue in question completely. Typically when discussing a problem at a meeting, the American manager will offer up the best results of a brainstroming session, whereas the German manager will go over the history of the problem. When the two groups meet in one meeting, the Germans often wonder why the Americans are such intellectual lightweights, and the Americans wonder why the Germans are so boring.
These are stereotypes but I assume there is something to them. I've seen them repeated in a lot of the business press. Both approaches have their strengths, I repeat these generalizations only because they suggest how little Americans value history. It is a cultural bias, a sense that there isn't much there to learn.
Good friends of mine, smart people, some of the them with Ph.ds, often surprise me with their ignorance of those important dates of 20th century history that I would regard as common knowledge, if I didn't know that such knowledge is not common. When did the last American troops pull out of Vietnam? When was Nixon President? When was Reagan President? How long did Thatcher run England? When was WWII? On each of these I've had at least one friend be wrong by a fair margin, and, again, these are smart people. Going further back things get murkier. Few of my friends know the dates of WWI. The American Civil War is an exception, a fair number of my friends know quite a bit about it.
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